App increases accessibility for disabled users on the go

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Whatever you want, as the saying goes – a taxi, a burger, a date – there’s an app for that. But is there an app for you? According to the team behind assist-Mi, an app centred on accessibility, most developers have things the wrong way around.

assist-Mi is part of a wider group called Grid Smarter Cities, a ‘connected smart city ecosystem’. The aim is to create a “connected, door-to-door experience.” Within this framework, a disabled user might choose to use assist-Mi to plan a route to to various accessible locations. The ultimate goal is maximum accessibility, which means the technology must be kept simple and intuitive.

The assist-Mi app is completely unique, allowing service providers to anticipate an individual’s arrival, communicate directly prior to their arrival and any requests for assistance and purchasing goods and services can all be made, acknowledged and actioned in real-time.

The app itself also has a two-way messaging functionality, similar to WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. It allows users to confirm the accessibility of a location and request any assistance they will need so that staff are prepared in advance of their arrival.

“I’m the lowest technical common denominator within the organisation,” says Neil Herron, Co-Founder and Director. “I’m the one who tests the app to ensure it’s easy enough for anyone and everyone to use.”

This is also true of the other components of Grid, which include virtual loading bay and parking solutions. The difference between these apps and others currently in development, according to Neil, is that they are developed in order to solve a particular problem with an identified audience in mind. Other apps, he says, are developed first using clever ideas and technology, with the market and end user being secondary considerations.

When the app was born in 2011, Neil was working as a campaigner appealing against parking fines. He was approached by Gary McFarlane, CEO of assist-Mi, to discuss problems faced by disabled drivers, who can be issued parking tickets for transgressions as minor as displaying their blue badge the wrong way up. During their meeting over cappuccinos, Gary mentioned an idea he had for an app that would tell a user where the nearest accessible bank or supermarket was.

“Right,” said Neil, “Let’s forget the parking tickets, and let’s have a look at this.”

The business was set up in the North East of England, and Neil funded the first round of development himself supported by grant funding. The team was then able to secure additional funding from local angel investors. The first pilot scheme was rolled out in 2013, when a major bank began piloting assist-Mi at their head office in Canary Wharf. There was no single ‘Eureka moment’, says Neil of the app’s inception, “because it was just so obvious that there was a gap in the market”.

There are currently around 11 team members working on Grid’s solutions, between the head office in Sunderland, their London base, and remote back office support. The assist-Mi app is currently developed by an external agency, but plans are in the works to bring this in-house.

The team’s plan, says Creative Dom Hyams, is that we don’t want to limit ourselves to making an amazing app for the disabled market that is as useful as possible – this is something that can be just as useful to the non-disabled market.”

“It’s been a rollercoaster ride,” Neil says when asked for a description of the journey so far. “Nobody [in tech startups] has an easy ride. Nobody sees the sleepless nights. Nobody sees the running around [to meet clients and investors]. What people see is the success.”

assist-Mi’s success to date spans several areas. The app was granted a UK patent in 2015, which protects the intellectual property of the founders. Neil says there is nothing similar currently available in the market, especially for the disabled user.

Another of assist-Mi’s achievements is the city-wide pilot scheme that was launched in Coventry late last year, incorporating museums, libraries, council offices and pubs. assist-Mi is also working with Remploy in a bid to help people with disabilities back into employment by removing some of the barriers to access that typically impede them.

A collaboration with taxi app Gett helps them to provide users with accessible black cabs in London. The problem with other transport apps, “mentioning no names,” says Neil, is that, however disruptive, they “are about price, not inclusivity and accessibility.”

Grid is also part of the London Stock Exchange Group’s Elite Programme for fast-growth companies. A pilot scheme of assist-Mi at the Stock Exchange has just concluded, and the solution is now live for disabled visitors. assist-Mi are also engaging with airports, supermarkets and other sector leaders, as well as the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Transport, and the All Party Parliamentary Group on Smart Cities.

Following the release of a promotional video highlighting their wish to create, not just an app, but an ‘Access Revolution’, assist-Mi received a letter from the United Nations to register their interest in becoming involved with the project.

Service providers will often want to know how many existing users an app has before they are willing to sign up, but Neil compares the “chicken-and-egg situation” to Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams: build, and they will come. There cannot be a large user base without businesses set up to receive those users.

Neil hopes to see a massive increase in scale over the next two years as a result of ‘peer pressure’ between companies desiring to stay competitive, and is excited by the potential in the technology sphere for a small company to become a global operator is a relatively short period of time.

“Never look at what you can’t do”, says Neil in summary, “just look at what you can.”